Carey Mulligan, Star of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ on the Coen Brothers, ‘N Sync Fandom, Lorde, and More

Mulligan dishes on playing a folkie in ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ being an ‘N Sync fan, and much more.

Armando Gallo/Retna Ltd.

Carey Mulligan is delightful. It’s the first word that comes to mind once you’re done chatting with the effortlessly cool actress who, at just 28 years of age, has emerged as one of the most exciting leading ladies in Tinseltown. Her unique mélange of old-school glamour and contempo wit has made her seem at home in period pieces like An Education (for which she received an Oscar nod) and The Great Gatsby, as well as gritty neo-noirs such as Drive and Shame.

Her latest film is the drama Inside Llewyn Davis. Helmed by the legendary Joel and Ethan Coen, it’s a melancholic tale about ornery, terribly stubborn, yet gifted singer-songwriter Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), who's struggling to navigate the folk scene in early 1960s Greenwich Village. Mulligan stars as Jean Berkey, a former paramour of Davis’s and one-half of a husband-wife folk duo with Jim (Justin Timberlake). The film also stars John Goodman, F. Murray Abraham, and Garrett Hedlund, and features an excellent soundtrack courtesy of producers T-Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford, lead singer of the band Mumford & Sons (and Mulligan’s real-life husband).

In an in-depth interview, Mulligan spoke to The Daily Beast about her thoughts on the ever-evolving New York City, favorite music, her thoughts on Lorde, ‘N Sync fandom, and the advice Julian Fellowes once gave her that she (thankfully) ignored.

This may seem silly, but I have a friend with the last name “Mulligan,” and we used to call her “Mulligatawny,” like the soup. Did you have any nicknames like that? No way! I’ve been called that. People have called me “Mulligatawny” before! I’ve had “Mullers,” Muller-Lite,” lots of variations. I also just get called “Mulligan” a lot, which I quite like. I quite like being called by my second name.

You play a singer in Inside Llewyn Davis. Did you sing or play any instruments when you were growing up?

I kind of played the piano and the guitar, like you do when you’re in primary school, but not for real. And I sang in the choir. Up until I was 14, I wanted to be a musical theater actress but my dream was dashed when I realized I wasn’t a good enough singer, and I can’t dance, and I don’t have any of the skills required.

If Russell Crowe can do it, you can do it.

[Laughs] Well, that’s to be debated. But I did a lot of that sort of stuff at school, and it sort of paid off in my late teens. I sang in church a lot, so every Sunday in church I’d be playing my guitar and singing.

I’m picturing Sister Act.

I wish it was like Sister Act. I would’ve modeled myself on Lauryn Hill, but it sadly wasn’t like Sister Act.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a Drive reunion of sorts, with you and Oscar. Were you aware of one-another’s involvement in the project when it was being put together, or was it just a happy accident?

I think they’d just cast Oscar, and then they wanted to cast the girl. I auditioned for it in November [2011], as I was in the middle of shooting Gatsby in Australia. Then I got the job, and I didn’t even meet Joel and Ethan until the following year when we came in for rehearsals.

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What scene did you tape for your audition? Did you sing a tune?

They watched Shame and decided I could hold a tune well enough to get through a harmony, so then I auditioned with the scene in the park with Oscar where we’re walking through the park and I’m screaming at him.

You did a great job performing “New York, New York”! I remember seeing the U.S. premiere of Shame in Telluride, and being blown away.

Oh really! I love Telluride. It’s the best festival. I didn’t go with Shame because I was working, and didn’t go with this because I was working, and I’m gutted because it’s the only festival that I like! There are no red carpets and you just flutter about watching films. It’s so great.

Did you do any research on the period to prep for Inside Llewyn Davis?

Kind of. Quite honestly, I got the part when I was in the middle of filming Gatsby, and we started shooting three days after finishing Gatsby, so I didn’t have any prep time, basically. Nowhere near as much as I would have liked. But I did as much as I could to figure out what was going on in that time. And meeting T-Bone [Burnett] and hanging out with him, that was a great education in what that time was about, and who those people were.

Jean is a very different character than Daisy. She’s much more of a fighter.

Yeah, Daisy’s downfall is that she has no spine, no courage in her convictions, and doesn’t follow through with anything. They’re quite separate in that respect. Jean lets rip and says exactly what she thinks, but she may not exactly be doing what she wants. I don’t think she’s living her life the way she truly, truly wants to, but is living her life the way she thinks she ought to, which mirrors Daisy’s dilemma in that she’s doing what society’s telling her she should do. The relationship with Jim is safe, and they’ve got their duo and are doing their own thing, and I think what really kills her is the person who knows her best, and the person she has the strongest connection with, is Llewyn, and there’s something about the tragedy of him that’s so appealing.

Jim’s of course played by Justin Timberlake, and I grew up with a little sister who was a huge ‘N Sync fan back in the day. Were you a big ‘N Sync fan?

[Laughs] I was definitely an ‘N Sync fan, but I wasn’t a massive ‘N Sync fan. I wasn’t a massive fan of anyone, really, and never had any posters on my wall. But I was definitely a fan and had the albums. They were catchy. And I’m also a big fan of everything he’s done since then as well.

You do probably have a lot of jealous young girls after you now that you’ve played the love interests of Ryan Gosling, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Justin Timberlake in the past few years.

I know! They’re ravenous. [Laughs]

With Timberlake, T-Bone, Marcus, and everyone involved, were there any epic karaoke sessions or sing-alongs among the cast during down time?

We had this week in the studio that I came in and out of where everyone came in and recorded all the music, and at that end of that week, on a Friday night, we went to Fran [McDormand] and Joel’s house and had a party. An immense, epic picking party began that went ‘til 3 a.m. It was The Punch Brothers, Oscar, T-Bone, Justin—everyone who worked on the soundtrack. For the first few hours I was like, “Wow!” And then I was like, “Ugh, ok…” because I was sitting on the sidelines. [Laughs]

Do you have a go-to karaoke song?

“I Would Do Anything For Love” by Meatloaf. Or “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” by Bryan Adams.

Good choices! What’s on the Mulligan iPod?

I’ve been listening to Phosphorescent, and ever since I met them a couple of months ago at this concert we did for the film, I’ve been completely obsessed with The Milk Carton Kids. And I’ve been listening to a lot of Gillian Welch.

Are you a Lorde fan?

Yeah! I don’t know her music very well, but I’ve heard a couple of tracks. One of my friends who works in the music industry last year played me her single and told me how old she was, and we were sitting in the car and I went, “WHAT?!? I’m 12 years older than her and I’ve done nothing!” [Laughs] But she’s amazing and I love her voice.

What’s your take on the folk revival? I’ve been curious about why we’re revisiting this sound some 50 years later.

I don’t know, really! I suppose I don’t know what happened enough the first time around. I’m always drawn to that music because I love the storytelling nature of it, so I’ve always found it really helpful. I started listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell, Allison Krauss, and Gillian Welch when I started doing plays, because it would help me click in at the beginning of a night, but I don’t really know why it’s come back around. I’m not a big “music person” though. I’m the type of person who gets music off family and friends and then pretends I discovered it on my own.

Speaking of 50-year anniversaries, the 50th Anniversary episode of Doctor Who recently aired. I know you starred on a memorable episode as Sally Sparrow. Did you see it?

I know! I didn’t see it but it was all over everything when I was at home.

Do you have guilty pleasure shows? I’m a Real Housewives of Beverly Hills fan, myself.

Oh my goodness. Yeah. X Factor—the British one. I’ve been filming so my Saturday nights are when I collapse, and there’s nothing nicer than collapsing to something like X Factor.

Between Shame and Inside Llewyn Davis, it’s become evident you have a pretty impressive set of pipes. Are we going to see some Carey Mulligan tuneage any time soon?

[Laughs] I think you probably will not see some tuneage from me for a long time now. I think I’ve done my tuneage for this decade.

I’m also a big fan of Mumford & Sons, and recently saw them at Lollapalooza. There’s this great story that’s circulated about how you and your husband, Marcus, first met when you were pen pals through your church. Is there any truth to that?

It’s a great story. I’ve chosen to blank it and not elaborate on that story, so sadly, I can’t speak about it anymore. That’s my British way of saying I don’t want to talk about it. [Laughs]

One of the things that really attracted me to the film is, as a New Yorker, the period detail is so great in the film, and it made me nostalgic for that time—1960’s Greenwich Village—especially since Greenwich Village is filled with terrible, fratty bars now.

Until about two years ago, I was in New York on and off and lived there for up to six months in different parts of town. If I could live anywhere besides England it would be New York. I love it. We took down a few neon signs and stuff, but we were filming in Greenwich Village, and for me, perhaps because I’m British, it still holds a certain magic. And the scene in Washington Square Park, they just threw a couple more extras into the scene but it looks exactly the same; nothing’s changed.

It is amazing that Washington Square Park has kept that vibe. Even though a lot of the area has been built up around it—with NYU, etc.—there’s still the artists, the chess players, and the people there selling terrible weed.

Yeah! It still feels the same, and they just set up a camera there and filmed us and a bunch of extras and it was the same place it was all that time ago.

Between Gatsby and Davis, you’ve been inserted in two very cool periods in the Roaring Twenties and 1960s Greenwich Village. If you could be transported to any period, what would it be?

Ah! I wouldn’t go to the ‘20s. I’m much too much of a square for the ‘20s. I’d be so hungover, and just do one night out and that would be it. That seems exhausting. I like the ‘60s, but maybe not in this particular circle … ‘60s London, maybe!

Another story I read that’s fascinating is that there was a screening of Gosford Park at your high school, and Julian Fellowes spoke to you after and told you to “marry a lawyer.” Is that true?

That’s actually true! My headmistress knew him and organized an event for him to talk about winning an Oscar for Gosford Park, and I met him afterwards because I was head of drama at my school—my finest hour—and, yeah, I said, “I desperately want to be an actress,” and he said, “Well, you should probably marry a lawyer or a banker—someone who can afford you.”

So you sort of went the other way on that one.

[Laughs] I did. That was the one piece of advice that I didn’t listen to.